A Question of Fairness

Clarence Thomas, a black, is Ronald Reagan's chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He walks a lonely road, not really agreeing with conservatives or liberals.

As a child in the 1950s, Clarence Thomas wore the ragged hand-me-downs familiar to many a poor black child in the segregated South. In the early 1960s, as the first black ever enrolled at St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, in Savannah, Georgia, he wore plain, neatly pressed shirts and slacks, along with an expression that bespoke a painful shyness. The goatee, the black leather jacket, and the solidarity with Malcolm X came at Holy Cross College, in Massachusetts, during the late 1960s. Yale Law School and corporate legal work in the 1970s finally brought Thomas a measure of real status and affluence. Now thirty-eight, and the chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Clarence Thomas dresses in dark, elegant, conservative business suits. He earns $71,000 a year and, when he is not being chauffered in a government car, drives a Camaro IROC-Z. The desk in his Washington office is an impressive structure of polished oak. Behind his leather chair stand two flags, one the Stars and Stripes and the other bearing the legend "Don't Tread on Me." It is an apt motto for the head of an agency charged with ensuring that discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, or national origin does not occur in the workplace, and that should it occur, appropriate steps are taken to seek redress.

The leaders of many civil-rights and women's groups wonder how seriously Clarence Thomas takes that motto. Indeed, some of them loathe Thomas. He is, after all, a member of the Reagan Administration—its second-highest-ranking black. He is the top federal official charged with curbing discrimination in the private sector. Every American company with more than fifteen employees must adhere to guidelines set by the EEOC on how to train, hire, and promote women, minorities, the elderly, and the handicapped. Thomas not only shapes and enforces those guidelines but helps to define Reagan Administration policies with respect to black America generally, policies that most blacks and white liberals abhor. Hodding Carter III, an official in the Carter Administration and now a syndicated columnist, recently characterized Thomas's performance as similar to that of the "'chicken-eating preachers' who gladly parroted the segregationists' line in exchange for a few crumbs from the white man's table."

And yet, as I discovered in a series of interviews spanning Thomas's nearly five years in office, Thomas does take seriously the stated responsibilities of his position. He simply wishes to change what the word discrimination means in the EEOC's official lexicon from what it has meant for more than two decades. And even though he is a committed supporter of President Reagan, Thomas brings to his job a view of race relations in the United States that Ronald Reagan probably does not suspect he harbors. The President's director of the EEOC is something of a black nationalist, as well as a sad, lonely, troubled, and deeply pessimistic public servant.

Ultimately, he said to me one day, turning away as if to avoid revealing some private hurt, it doesn't matter that black and white Americans are unlikely ever to see each other as anything but blacks and whites. It doesn't matter that a black man in America is only rarely judged on the basis of his character rather than that of his color. It does not really matter that the dream of racial integration—of uplift through education, of gradual absorption into the social and economic mainstream—has not worked for most black Americans, even for those who, like him, have leaped the boundaries of the ghetto and, it would seem, "made it" in a white world. For when you get right down to it, Thomas said, successful blacks don't particularly like the kind of integration that whites have crafted for them in the past thirty years. Increasing numbers of middle-class blacks see integration simply as window dressing; blacks may be present and visible, but only a few have any real power.

On this point Clarence Thomas accurately captures the frustration of many middle-class blacks: people who are educated, employed in challenging and high-paying positions, and yet somehow still angry The anger is usually inexplicable to their white friends and colleagues. The reason for it, quite simply, is race. "There is nothing you can do to get past black skin," Thomas said. "I don't care how educated you are, how good you are at what you do -- you'll never have the same contacts or opportunities, you'll never be seen as equal to whites." In interviews and in polls middle-class blacks repeatedly come off as resentful about their lives in white America: angry at the pleasure some whites take in the progress made by blacks (even as black families continue to take in about fifty-nine cents for every dollar taken in by white families); angry too, that blacks remain a negligible presence in the corporate world (where such blacks as there are feel shut out of the informal networks among whites that facilitate advancement).

But while Thomas may share the resentment of other middle-class blacks, he does not share much else. He has his own ideas about how to deal with racism and discrimination, and those ideas have made him less a radical of the far right than ideologically sui generis. He does not, deep down, share the Reagan Administration's professed belief in a "colorblind" society, because he believes that such a society probably cannot be achieved. It is unlikely that whites will ever fully accept blacks as equals, in his opinion, and so blacks should prepare to do for themselves: by making black schools into rigorous training grounds, by investing in black businesses, by working for black corporations, and by living in black neighborhoods. Forget the traditional pressure tactics—demonstrations, boycotts, lobbying by civil-rights groups -- that are meant to gain a share of power, wealth, and influence in white American institutions.

Thomas's ideas have come to Washington at a time when the United States is entering what might be called the post-Romantic period of the American civil-rights movement. Ronald Reagan has won two terms in the White House with little support from black voters. He owes nothing to the black electorate. He rarely speaks to black groups and never meets with civil-rights leaders. Yet Thomas's racial agenda suits the Reagan Administration's agenda just fine. Thomas is an opponent of busing, arguing that black children gain nothing from simply sitting next to whites and can do quite well in their own schools. He is a critic of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared the segregation of public schools to be illegal. Thomas thinks that the Court's ruling was based on the assumption that any all-black school had to be inferior to an integrated school. (Thomas, a single parent, sends his son to an integrated private school in the Washington suburbs but insists that whether the school is integrated, all-black, or virtually all-white is irrelevant, and that he chose the school he did only in the interest of obtaining the best education for his son.) Thomas is also against affirmative action to get more blacks into U.S. corporations, contending that affirmative action—meaning goals and timetables for employers who have hired few, or have never hired, blacks—not only is window dressing but also has failed to help the mass of poor black people get into the mainstream economy. Affirmative action, he believes, has primarily meant more money for a few qualified blacks, usually the scions of the already well-to-do. Thomas fights angrily against requirements that employers alter tests to allow as many blacks as whites to pass. These prescriptions strike him as "assuming that blacks lack intelligence" and that they "can't perform as well as whites." Lowering standards on tests, he says, may help a few blacks get a few good jobs, but it also puts the federal imprimatur on the idea that educated blacks can't compete, and therefore lends credence to it—a loss that isn't worth the gain. Thomas wants to strengthen black colleges and universities rather than press white schools to admit more blacks. White liberals, who want to end "dual" school systems in the South, should leave black people alone."

Thomas stands in the tradition of Booker T. Washington, who argued against integrationists like W.E.B. DuBois earlier in this century. Washington contended that freed black slaves should remain in their own southern communities, work hard, and develop their own farms and businesses. Thomas favors strengthening black businesses in which employers can amass capital and employees can make it on their own without the stigma of being labeled "one of the blacks" in the firm. Thomas believes that the most significant progress made by the American civil-rights movement is due to the individual efforts of black men and women, standing firm in the face of overt racism and demanding their rights as Americans. Thomas puts little stock in rulings by the Supreme Court, decisions made in the White House, or even the good will of whites who support integration. Like Booker T. Washington, Thomas puts his faith in the ability of black people to use their minds and their muscles to do for themselves. He quotes from memory these words of Malcolm X: "The American black man should be focusing his every effort toward building his own businesses and decent homes for himself. As other ethnic groups have done, let the black people, wherever possible, however possible, patronize their own kind, hire their own kind, and start in those ways to build up the black race's ability to do for itself. That's the only way the American black man is ever going to get respect. "

Clarence Thomas, in sum, is a man who does not see integration as the panacea for the problems of black America. The familiar integrationist agitation of black civil-rights leaders leaves him cold. He agrees with Reagan's characterization of the civil-rights leaders as old men fomenting discontent to justify their own "rather good positions." "The issue is economics—not who likes you." Thomas has told me. "And when you have the economics, people do have a way of changing their attitudes toward you. I don't see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own. Where does he say black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?

Above all—and perhaps this is the main reason why he is regarded with such disdain be so many blacks, and so many Hispanics and women as well—Thomas refuses to see civil rights as a matter of corporate struggle and group equity. Are blacks, Hispanics, and women, as groups, victims of discrimination on the job, as evidenced by group statistics on hiring, promotion, and pay? Thomas is not very much interested in this question. What about an individual who claims discrimination? Here, and here alone, a black or a woman might find Thomas to be a friend in court.

CLARENCE Thomas was sent to live with his grandfather, Myers Anderson, when he was seven years old. His father had long before left for Philadelphia; his mother had remarried, and her new husband didn't want children from the previous marriage around. Thomas, his mother, and brother had been living in a room off an alley in Savannah for about a year. Before that the children had lived in Pinpoint, a rundown town outside Savannah, with an aunt. Thomas remembers eating cornflakes several times a day, wandering the streets, playing hooky. Displayed prominently in Clarence Thomas's office is a photograph of Myers Anderson: a muscular older man in a white undershirt, standing ready to go to work. "When the civil-rights people indict me," Thomas said soon after his grandfather's death, in 1983, "the man they are indicting is that man. Let them call him from the grave and indict him. "

When Thomas and his brother went to live with their grandfather in Savannah, in 1956, it was the first time that they had ever lived in a house with a bathroom. It was their first experience of three square meals a day. Their grandfather had built his own house, and, although he could barely read or write, he was a strong advocate of education. Clarence could no longer miss school. Anderson, a devout Catholic, paid $30 a year for the Thomas boys to attend an all-black Catholic school, run by white nuns. Every afternoon at three it was straight home to change clothes and help Myers deliver ice and oil. In the evenings, after washing dishes, Thomas went, he remembers, to the library for blacks, which had been built by the Carnegies. (Blacks were barred from the Savannah Public Library.) "I used to run to the library to flip through the pages and dream. I just remember The New Yorker. You know, what did I know about New York? But I said, One day, I'm going to be able to read this, be sophisticated enough to deal with these kinds of things." Although Myers Anderson was nearly illiterate, Clarence came to appreciate that his grandfather had not let segregation or a lack of schooling stand in the way of his living a decent life. His grandfather, a strong Democrat, had been involved in local efforts to get voting rights for blacks, and he voted religiously.

Clarence learned other lessons from his grandfather after a visit up North to see some relatives, who were now shelved in housing projects and living on welfare. "He'd say, 'Damn welfare, that relief!—Man ain't got no business on relief as long as he can work.'"

Southern society, both black and white, had another view of Clarence and his grandfather. Black Savannah society, Clarence Thomas recalls bitterly, knew him as ABC—America's Blackest Child ("and you have to remember that for someone to call you black in the sixties, that meant serious business"). He was ridiculed not only for his extremely dark complexion but also for his hair -- they called it "nigger naps"—and thick lips. Thomas's grandfather endured worse. "I remember this lady came up to the house—Miss Morgan," Thomas told me one day. "Her husband was noted for being fairly mean. She drove up in one of those great big Buick Electras. Granddaddy was out in the field. You see a car driving up and you always wonder who it is, because we had a dirt road leading up to the house—you see all the dust and everything. She said, 'Myers, boy.' And you could see him seethe. He looked around and saw his little kids there. You could see him seethe. People say what kind of manhood does it take to yell back and get mad. But what must it have taken for him not only to take the insult but the stares from his kids seeing him being called a boy. The most significant things [in civil rights] were things that I saw day-to-day, not the protests downtown or in Washington."

Integration touched Thomas's life for the first time in tenth grade. His grandfather decided that he wanted Clarence, a good student, to attend an all-white Catholic boarding school, St. John Vianney Minor Seminary. Thomas was admitted without incident. He got excellent grades and was a star quarterback on the school's football team. His grandfather bragged that his grandson would become a priest. To Anderson, Clarence became a racial symbol. On vacations his grandfather would take him to the local NAACP meetings and have him read his grades aloud: "He thought I was living proof that black people were as good as white people."

In his own mind, however, Thomas was in a state of crisis. He had never been around many whites. Now he was living with them. He saw how many more possessions they had, how the other boys commanded respect as seminarians in a town where he was at best ignored. (Thomas remembers a quote from Richard Wright's Blank Metropolis: "But the American negro, child of the culture that crushes him, wants to be free in a way that white men are free. For him to wish otherwise would be unnatural, unthinkable.") Most devastating of all were the racist jokes and slights that Thomas's fellow seminarians made at his expense. Myers Anderson had held the church up as a moral and ethical model. But, Thomas told me, "After lights out someone would yell, 'Smile, Clarence, so we can see you.' The statement wasn't the bad part, it was no one saying 'Shut up.' " On Thursday afternoons, when students went to town with their friends, Thomas was left alone. Movie theaters were still segregated; to eat at a restaurant with classmates would have caused a stir.

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